Sonoma County fires can’t keep longtime volunteer away from her work

Wildfires were still raging across Sonoma County the morning Barbara Toschi decided to go to work anyway.

Less than 48 hours before, her Alexander Valley ranch had been in the crosshairs of the Tubbs and Pocket fires. She and her husband had packed up their cars and prepared to leave. The evacuation orders came twice. Still, they stayed.

Then: Nothing. The flames swept away from their property line. The home — with its sprawling 100 acres of mature oak trees and vineyards — was spared.

So when Tuesday came, Toschi did what she does every Tuesday: Drive to the Sonoma County Human Services Department office off Mendocino Avenue in downtown Santa Rosa, where she does volunteer work for the Chronicle Season of Sharing Fund, which provides temporary assistance to Bay Area people in need.

Blocks away, the wildfires continued to burn. Ash rained from the sky, and thick smoke occluded the sun. Toschi was the only one in the office.

“I had a couple of applications I needed to call landlords for,” Toschi said. “All my material was there. I’m used to going in. I wanted to get it done.”

Emergency workers later sent Toschi home. But her colleagues and friends say that is what makes Toschi an “outstanding” worker. Even when crisis hits, Toschi shows up to her twice-a-week shifts, where she reviews housing forms and need-assistance applications.

In its 31 years, the Season of Sharing Fund has raised more than $120 million for people in need in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Solano and Sonoma counties. So far, more than $6.7 million has been raised this year, with the funding going to housing assistance, including those displaced by the fires, as well as critical family needs and food banks.

For more than two decades, she has been one of two people to fill the volunteer roles. She fields applications from 17 social service agencies across Sonoma County, a gig that can be “pretty hectic at times,” she said.

In the wake of the Wine Country fires, she’s helped an asthmatic mother find a new home to replace the one she lost, and paired households who had lost their homes to the inferno with new apartments. Many of the people can’t afford the deposit and first month’s rent. Others struggle to pay medical bills. Toschi is the touch point, the one who double checks the forms and makes the process smoother.

“Barbara is fantastic,” said Kris Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the Sonoma County Human Services Department. “Smart, compassionate and organized. She’s dedicated to helping people.”

Toschi has volunteered for the fund for more than 20 years, probably even longer than that. She worked at another organization before the Season of Sharing Fund, and it later evolved into her current role. But Toschi’s not certain exactly how long she’s been in the position. She has trouble even remembering how old she is.

Definitely 79, she said Monday, after some mental arithmetic.

“It seems strange to me to say that,” Toschi said. “I do not feel that age.”

A former junior high school science teacher in Palo Alto, Toschi grew up on the Peninsula and worked a string of odd jobs. They include a stint as a cashier and representative for a phone company, and as a secretary at a national accelerator laboratory run by Stanford University.

She later went to San Jose State University to get her nutrition degree. But she never actually used it. After graduating, she backpacked across Africa, stopping in Malawi, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia, where she went on an expedition to find the grave of a great-grandfather killed by a stray boulder in a freak accident.

“I just bounced from place to place, curious and exploring myself,” Toschi said. She moved to a small Sonoma County enclave called Alexander Hill in 1974, after marrying her husband, and soon began looking for a way to fill her time.

“I felt I needed to do something,” she said of her volunteer work. “I had my registered dietitian degree, but I didn’t feel like doing anything with it. We are well provided for. I’m very lucky to be able to do this without having to earn. I am just giving in a way that I know I can give.”

Recently, that’s meant adding a third day to her volunteer schedule. She likes talking to people on the phone, hearing their stories and helping them get the resources they need.

“It’s easy for you, like playing the piano,” one of Toschi’s colleagues recently said of her. “You just know the notes and where to put everything. Like an orchestration.”

It should be, Toschi said, after all the years she’s done it.

“We’ve gotten even more money” from The Chronicle, she said. “It’s been fabulous to see how far that can go. A lot of people have lost their jobs or homes. This helps them get over the hump. It’s just very fulfilling to be able to know their situations and help in some kind of way.”

Lizzie Johnson is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @LizzieJohnsonnn

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